December 10th, 2008

Economic Woes May Force Colleges to Go Corporate

By Michael McCarthy and Jodi Upton
USA Today

The freefalling economy might force college sports to bend or drop some opposition to creeping commercialism on campuses.

That was the warning Wednesday from Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart, a panelist at the seventh annual IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum’s session on trends in financing and fundraising.

The college world “can’t have it both ways,” Barnhart said during the panel discussion. Many college sports fans and boosters say they want more modern facilities with luxury suites, improved concessions areas, high-tech video scoreboards and sound systems, Barnhart said.

The problem? They don’t want to pay for them through higher ticket prices or bigger donations.

If that’s the case, some might have to “get past” their opposition to corporate naming rights on athletic facilities or increased advertising signage inside arenas and stadiums.

“That is not unusual on a college campus,” Barnhart said after the conference. “It’s generally done in the name of a donor, an individual or a person who’s said, ‘I want to do this for the School of Business or the School of Engineering or a library.’ Everybody says that’s OK because it feels OK. It’s not corporate. The minute it goes corporate, everybody has a little bit of a panic attack and says, ‘We’ve sold out.’

“Well, if you put a corporate name on a library, does that change the books inside of it? No, it’s still a place where students go to study and students go to gain knowledge. It didn’t change a thing. I’d say the same about an athletic facility.”

Take Kentucky’s “tradition-rich” Rupp Arena, Barnhart noted. Built in 1976, it has no luxury suites, and the video boards are in corners of the building. There’s been talk of new arena in downtown Lexington. But it won’t be free. In an economically struggling state, few are willing to pay more for tickets or boost their donations.

“You’ve got to pick your poison,” Barnhart said.

To that end, Kentucky has asked IMG College and International Stadia Group to conduct a feasibility study on whether those firms can undertake three major construction projects: replacing 32-year-old Rupp; refurbishing the Kentucky football team’s Commonwealth Stadium with new suites and club seats; and building an all-new, on-campus baseball stadium.

The catch? Kentucky wouldn’t pay a dime.

Instead, it would swap many of the sports media and marketing rights that big-time colleges now sell for tens of millions in exchange for the new or expanded facilities.

Under its previous name, Host Communications, IMG College and Lexington TV station WKYT signed a 10-year, $80 million contract with Kentucky for those rights in 2004. The school plans to make a decision on the unique proposal within three months, Barnhart said.

In another discussion, panelists debated whether accepting revenue from fantasy sports leagues that some feel are exploitative of college athletes is a bridge too far, even in the current economy.

Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said fantasy revenue “should be left” on the table.

“It’s a slippery slope toward commercialism and professionalization of college sports,” she said. 

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